Gratin: The upper crust
In English we traditionally refer to the so-called “upper classes” as the “upper crust”. In France they refer to the elite as the “gratin” — I like culinary analogies.
According to my Oxford Companion to Food “gratin” originally referred to the baked on bits in the bottom of a cooked dish, something that needed to be scraped — the French word for scraped is “gratte” hence “gratin”. Over time the word has come to mean any baked dish that has a browned top. This gratin effect is achieved by sprinkling breadcrumbs, cheese, a combination of both — or sometimes nothing — on top.
Breadcrumbs can be bought fine breadcrumbs, Japanese style panko crumbs (Kiwi brand Fog Dog are great and have no palm oil in them) or fresh breadcrumbs made by blitzing stale bread (use a good quality bread) in a food processor or blender. These can all be used interchangeably.
Cheese should be something that will melt and bubble like cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan or gruyere. In the colder weather a gratin is the perfect addition to a meal, or it can be the meal itself. Anything with a gratin top I find supremely comforting and delicious and I will definitely be making a few of the following over the next couple of months.
1 Make a classic potato gratin. Slice lots of peeled agria potatoes ½ cm thick and layer them in an ovenproof dish, seasoning with salt and pepper and sprinkling a little finely chopped garlic in between the layers. Pour in enough cream to just cover the potatoes and top with lots of grated gruyere cheese. Bake for 1-2 hours at 180C or until the cream has been absorbed, the potatoes are tender and the top well-browned.
2 Fry lots of thinly sliced onions, garlic and dried wild oregano in extra virgin olive oil for 10 minutes or until the onions are soft. Place them in an even layer in an ovenproof dish. Add layers of seasoned thinly sliced peeled pumpkin and wilted spinach. Top with a generous sprinkling of halved cherry tomatoes, pine nuts and breadcrumbs well mixed with a little extra virgin olive oil and chopped garlic. Bake at 200C for an hour or until everything is tender.
3 Slow-fry finely chopped onion, 1 cm-diced carrot, thinly sliced celery, the zest of a lemon, a few fennel seeds and finely chopped garlic in a little butter until the onions are soft. Add lots of flaked, skinned, boned smoked fish, chopped curly parsley and a little white wine. Let the wine evaporate then add cream to barely cover. Bring to the boil and pour into an ovenproof dish. Sprinkle well with coarse breadcrumbs, dot with butter and bake 30 minutes at 200C until bubbling and well-browned.
4 Fry some thinly sliced onions, garlic, a big pinch of chilli flakes, the finely diced peel of half a preserved lemon and freshly grated nutmeg in extra virgin olive oil until the onion is soft. Meanwhile boil silverbeet leaves in plenty of water for 5 minutes then add lots of spinach leaves and let them wilt. Refresh under cold water, squeeze dry and slice thinly. Add the spinach and silverbeet to the onions, along with some blanched broccoli florets and a little chicken or vegetable stock. Mix well, taste and season. Pour into an ovenproof dish. Cover with a 50-50 mix of freshly grated parmesan and coarse breadcrumbs, drizzle with a little more oil and place in the oven at 200C for 20 minutes or until hot and well-browned.
5 Slow-fry the culinary holy trinity of finely chopped onions, 1 cm-diced carrots and thinly sliced celery with finely chopped garlic, a couple of large thyme sprigs and a pinch of chilli flakes in extra virgin olive oil for about 10 minutes or until the onion is soft. Add plenty of raw pure pork sausages sliced 2cm thick and a little white wine. Let the wine bubble for 30 seconds then add a couple of cans of crushed tomatoes and a couple of well drained cans of cannellini beans. Mix well, bring to the boil, taste and season. Pour into an ovenproof dish. Sprinkle the top with plenty of breadcrumbs, drizzle with oil and bake at 200C for 20-30 minutes.
6 Slow-fry finely chopped onions, garlic, thinly sliced fennel and lemon zest in extra virgin olive oil for 15 minutes or until the onion is very soft. Add a big pinch of saffron threads which have been steeped in ¼ cup hot water for 20 minutes. Mix, taste and season. Place this in an even layer in a wide ovenproof dish. Place skinned, boned fish fillets side by side on top. Mix fresh breadcrumbs with a dollop of tahini and some sliced almonds so there are no lumps. Sprinkle this over the fish, dot with butter and place in the oven for 25 minutes at 200C until the fish is cooked and the crumbs well-browned.
7 Treat yourself to some scallops. Brown them very quickly over high heat (with diced 3cm cubes of skinned and boned firm white fish if you want to make the scallops go further) but don’t let them cook right through. Remove from the pan. Pan-fry finely chopped shallots and a little garlic in butter until the shallots are soft. Add the scallops, mix well, taste and season. Place in an ovenproof dish and cover with breadcrumbs well mixed with chopped parsley, softened butter and a little chopped garlic. Place in a 200C oven for 15 minutes or until the crumbs are well-browned — the scallops (and fish) will be cooked.
8 Think Mac and Cheese but do it better. Pan-fry lots of finely diced pancetta (or bacon), finely chopped onion, garlic, a fresh bay leaf, 1 cm-diced carrots, sliced button mushrooms and thinly sliced celery for 10 minutes or until the onion is soft. Add al dente short pasta (eg penne or rigatoni), mix well and cover with hot milk. Bring to the boil then lightly thicken with a slurry of cornflour mixed with a little water. Taste and season. Pour into a deep ovenproof dish. Cover with a mix of 2 parts breadcrumbs, 1 part grated tasty cheddar and ½ part freshly grated parmesan. Place in the oven at 200C for 20 minutes or until everything is bubbling and the top well browned.
9 Make a French-style onion soup by slow-frying lots (1 kg for 4 people) of thinly sliced onions, garlic, a bay leaf and fresh thyme for 20 minutes or until the onions are very soft. Add a big splash of white wine and let it bubble for 30 seconds then cover with beef stock. Bring to the boil and season. Pour into individual heatproof bowls and cover with sliced, toasted sourdough. Sprinkle the toast with lots of grated Gruyere cheese and place under the grill until bubbling and browned. Serve sprinkled with chopped parsley.
10 Fill precooked cannelloni shells with a mix of well-seasoned pan-fried in extra virgin olive oil minced pork, rehydrated thinly sliced porcini, garlic, sliced button mushrooms and chopped parsley. Place side by side in a shallow ovenproof dish. Pour some canned crushed tomatoes into a bowl, taste and season. Pour this evenly over the cannelloni and top with sliced mozzarella and parmesan. Place in the oven at 200C for 20 minutes or until the cannelloni is tender.